Terrapin Beach Nature Park

by Jim Rapp

If you can spare an hour or more next time you're crossing the bridge, stop near Stevensville, Maryland, to explore Terrapin Nature Park.

The Chesapeake Bay Bridge delivers thousands of people to Delmarva every day. Some are returning home to the Peninsula after trips to Baltimore and Washington, some are in a hurry to get to the beach or bay and start their vacation, and some are just passing through. Most don't take the time to explore the areas along the highway that have been preserved for their nature or history.

If you can spare an hour or more next time you're crossing the bridge, stop near Stevensville, Maryland, to explore Terrapin Nature Park. Just north of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge on Kent Island, this 276-acre park features wonderful habitat diversity, including wildflower meadows, marshes, tidal ponds, forests and sandy bay beaches. A 3-mile oystershell trail provides access for hikers, with a gazebo, boardwalk, and observation blinds for spying on herons, egrets and waterfowl in the shallow ponds. The trail leads you to a sandy beach with an incredible view of the bridge that connects Delmarva to the land west of the Chesapeake.

If you hike at Terrapin Nature Park, bring your binoculars. More than 230 bird species have been recorded here, and the site serves as an important stop for migratory songbirds. Recent sightings include a number of high-quality late summer migrants, including Magnolia Warbler, Blackburnian Warbler, and Chestnut-sided Warbler.

If you have a little more time to spend along the Chesapeake bayshore, bring your bike. Cyclists can connect to the park via the 6 and 1/2 mile Cross Island Trail, a safe, tree-lined biking path that is not open to motorized vehicles. The trail spans Kent Island west to east from Terrapin Park to the Kent Narrows, and meanders through farmland, forest and meadow. Wooden bridges cross over several Chesapeake creeks, which also provide excellent stops for scanning the marsh for wildlife. At the Kent Narrows, you can stop for lunch or tour the Chesapeake Exploration Center. Here, you can learn from exhibits about Chesapeake Bay geology, ecology and history.

Terrapin Nature Park is named for one of the most famous residents of the Chesapeake, which also happens to be Maryland's state reptile and University mascot. The Diamondback Terrapin is a beautiful aquatic turtle named for the diamond-shaped rings that cover its shell. The color of the upper shell, or carapace, ranges from brownish-green to gray. Some terrapin shells appear nearly black. Their skin is gray or white and flecked with black spots and streaks. The color and pattern are specific to the individual, and no two terrapins look exactly alike. They have a seriously sharp beak, and big, flat, webbed feet that help them swim in strong tidal currents. Females are larger then males, and can grow up to 11 inches across the shell.

Diamondback terrapins thrive in estuary habitat that many other turtles avoid. You can find them peeking just above the water line in the Chesapeake Bay's brackish tidal rivers and creeks, where they use their sharp beaks to chomp on snails, clams, mussels, fish, and crabs. While these brackish waters provide perfect habitat for terrapins, most other turtles prefer their water to be either fresh or salty.

During the frigid winter months, terrapins hibernate in the muddy banks or bottoms of Chesapeake creeks. To survive for months under water, the terrapins' metabolism slows down dramatically, thus reducing the need for oxygen. The little oxygen that is required to sustain life during this time is absorbed from the water through the terrapins' mouth and cloaca, or tail opening.

After emerging from hibernation in the spring, Diamondback Terrapins will mate, usually in the water at night, during the month of May. When their eggs are ready to be laid, female terrapins crawl out onto sandy beaches -- just like the beach at Terrapin Nature Park -- to dig a shallow cavity and lay up to 20 pinkish-white leathery eggs. Females can lay several clutches during nesting season. The eggs normally hatch in late summer, but if left undisturbed, they can overwinter in the sand and hatch the following spring.

Diamondback Terrapins have had a tough run in the Chesapeake in modern times, but things are looking up for Maryland's state reptile. People who share the turtle's estuary habitat have long prized terrapin meat. The origin of its name indicates its position with the human species. The word "terrapin" is derived from an Algonquian word for "edible turtle."

When Europeans arrived and developed a taste for turtle soup, Diamondback Terrapins were harvested without regulation. During the late 1800s, high-end restaurants became famous for their heavily guarded turtle soup recipes. To feed demand for fresh turtle meat, the Hotel Rennert in Baltimore kept pens in the basement that could hold hundreds of live terrapins.

The popularity of turtle soup lead to a dangerous decline in Chesapeake terrapin populations. One account lists an 1891 Chesapeake harvest of around 35,000 terrapins. A decade later, the harvest was fewer than 70 turtles. In the 1920s, Prohibition may have helped provide temporary relief from the terrapin harvest, as sherry, a key ingredient for turtle soup, was outlawed.

Terrapin populations bounced back in the 1900s, until China began to import Diamondback Terrapins for consumption in the late 1990s. This recent wave of commercial terrapin harvesting sparked another decline in the population. Between 2002 and 2006, the estimated harvest of Diamondback Terrapins in Maryland jumped from 151 to more than 11,000. To help keep the state reptile safe in the Chesapeake, conservationists worked successfully with state agencies and elected leaders to end the commercial harvest. The Diamondback Terrapin fishery was closed in Maryland in 2007.

While this protective measure has helped, life in Delmarva's estuaries isn't easy for terrapins. Waterfront development has removed salt marsh habitat and crucial nesting beaches. Roads that separate the aquatic terrapins from sandy beaches can cause gravid females to be struck and killed by vehicles. Eggs and hatchlings are eaten by raccoons, crabs, gulls, and other predators.

Crab pots can pose another problem for air-breathing Diamondback Terrapins. The same bait used to attract blue crabs also lures in hungry terrapins. If the turtles can't get out of the wiry trap, they will drown.

To reduce terrapin deaths in crab pots, the traps are fitted with turtle excluders, or "bycatch reduction devices." The excluders allow large crabs in, but keep adult terrapins out. Recreational crab pots in Maryland and Delaware are required to have turtle excluders, which can be purchased in most bait shops.

The Diamondback Terrapin is more than just a state symbol and team mascot. The terrapin is a Chesapeake icon, and its presence in Delmarva's coastal waters symbolizes the progress that has been made in the effort to save our bays and wildlife. The sandy beach habitat at Terrapin Nature Park is just one piece of the Chesapeake conservation puzzle that helps sustain this once-rare animal for generations to come.

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